The nine justices of the Supreme Court, who serve without seeking election, soon will have to decide whether to insert themselves into the center of the presidential campaign next year.
The high court began its new term Monday, and President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, which affects almost everyone in the country, is squarely in its sights.
The Obama administration’s request last week that the justices resolve whether the health care law is constitutional makes it more likely than not that they will deliver their verdict by June 2012, just as Obama and his Republican opponent charge toward the fall campaign.
Already, GOP presidential contenders use virtually every debate and speech to assail Obama’s major domestic accomplishment, which aims to extend health insurance to more than 30 million people now without coverage.
If as now expected the justices agree to review the law’s constitutionality, those deliberations would certainly define the court’s coming term. Their decision could rank as the court’s most significant since the December 2000 ruling that effectively sealed George W. Bush’s election as president.
Health care is only one of several issues that the court could hear that would make for a “fantastic Supreme Court term,” said former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, now in private practice at the Hogan Lovells law firm.
Other high-profile cases on the horizon concern immigration and affirmative action, hot-button issues at any time and only more so in an election year.
Less likely, though still with a chance to make it to the court this year are cases involving gay marriage and the landmark Voting Rights Act that some Southern states argue has outlived its usefulness.
Decisions about whether to even to consider health care, affirmative action and immigration are a month off or more.
In the meantime, the justices will take up a First Amendment case looking at the regulation of television broadcasts as well as a couple of appeals involving the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Among the cases involving criminal defendants is one from an inmate awaiting execution in Alabama who missed a deadline to appeal his death sentence because the big-firm lawyers in New York who had been handling his case for free moved on to new jobs and letters from the court clerk sat in the firm’s mailroom before being returned to sender.
The court is beginning its second year with the same complement of justices after consecutive terms of welcoming new members, Sonia Sotomayor and then Elena Kagan.
Those two justices, on the liberal-leaning side of the court, voted together on almost every case last year. The same was true for Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on the other side of the ideological spectrum.